Bucs system bolstered by Polanco, Glasnow

Pirates not done graduating top prospects to Major Leagues

Gregory Polanco was a five-tool threat for Triple-A Indianapolis before making his big league debut. (Mark Olson/MiLB.com)

By John Parker / MiLB.com | November 12, 2014 10:00 AM

This offseason, MiLB.com will be honoring the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organizations. We're taking a look at each team to determine the outstanding seasons in Minor League baseball. Select a team from the dropdown below.

The Pirates' system has thinned out a bit as recent top Draft picks like Gerrit Cole, along with international signings like Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, have graduated to the Majors -- the organization's affiliates combined for a .453 winning percentage in 2014, fourth-worst of the 30 systems.

Though only Class A Advanced Bradenton made its league playoffs (and was swept in the first round), Pittsburgh fans still have top-level talent to look forward to in the near future. Jameson Taillon will return from Tommy John surgery, Elias Diaz emerged as a legitimate catching prospect, and best of all, right-hander Tyler Glasnow improved on a strong 2013 season to earn MiLB.com's nod for Minor League Pitcher of the Year.

The organization as a whole has benefited from stable leadership and an approach to development that is system-wide -- one example being that the Pirates so stress the importance of pitching inside that their top five affiliates (and the big league club) each led their circuits in hit batsmen. The goal, of course, is not to plunk hitters, but to maintain a consistent approach to developing players. That commitment seems to be paying off.

Pirates Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- Elias Diaz, Altoona (91 games), Indianapolis (10 games): Diaz had the finest season of his career after making the jump to Double-A this year. The 23-year-old backstop set personal bests in batting average (.312), slugging (.421), RBIs (54) and walks (33).

Behind the plate, Diaz threw out 31 percent of would-be base stealers -- about average in the Eastern League -- and was named the loop's best defensive catcher by Baseball America. The Pirates have long seen potential in the Venezuelan-born Diaz and sent him to the Arizona Fall League to hone his game following the regular season.

"It was a good opportunity for him to get more experience controlling a game from behind the plate with guys from different organizations. Offensively, continuing to solidify his approach and plan have been the focus," said Pirates director of Minor League operations Larry Broadway.

First base -- Jose Osuna, Bradenton (97 games): A second full season spent in Bradenton proved positive for Osuna, who saw his batting average and OBP go up 50 points and his slugging improve by 100 points. A lack of pop remains an issue -- he hit 16 homers for West Virginia in 2012 but just 18 in two seasons with the Marauders -- and though the FSL tends to depress power numbers, Bradenton's McKechnie Field is actually rather power-friendly.

Osuna, who turns 22 in December, was young for the FSL, even after two years there, and ranked fifth in the league in batting with a .296 average and second with a .458 slugging percentage. He was particularly strong in the second half of the season, hitting .311/.367/.494 after the All-Star break, and though he doesn't walk much, he makes good contact -- of the 25 FSL hitters with at least 10 homers, only three fanned fewer than Osuna's 72 times. As a former pitcher, the right-handed has an approach at the plate that belies his youth and lack of experience.

Honorable mention: Stetson Allie

Second base -- Erich Weiss, West Virginia (130 games): An 11th-round pick in 2013, Weiss was a workhorse for the Power in his first full season, playing in 130 of West Virginia's 135 games. After spending his 2013 season at third base for Jamestown, Weiss worked exclusively at second in 2014, with better results. He committed 20 errors in 114 games at second after having erred 13 times in just 35 games at third base in 2013.

For a guy with minimal power -- he hit four homers and slugged .378 -- Weiss' strikeout rate was awfully high at 21.7 percent; he finished eighth in the system with 117 K's. His 60 walks ranked third in the Pirates organization, however, and his strong propensity to hit the ball on the ground led to an unusually high .373 BABIP that may prove to be sustainable (he posted a .398 mark in 2013). Weiss' platoon splits were also extreme, with an OPS nearly 200 points higher against righties. Likely to start at second for Bradenton next season as a 23-year-old, Weiss will need to demonstrate a greater ability to put the ball in play before rising higher.

Third base -- Chase Simpson, Jamestown (55 games): Simpson took over the third-base job in Jamestown after the Pirates selected him in the 14th round of the June Draft. A switch-hitter, the Wichita State product hit well from both sides of the plate and tied for the Jammers' lead with seven homers while posting a team-best .369 OBP. After slumping slightly in July, Simpson finished on a strong note by batting .412/.444/.647 in his final 14 games.

A senior sign, Simpson is a bit older than his New York-Penn League colleagues -- he'll turn 23 in February -- and his work in the field was undistinguished. If he can continue to get on base and generate power from both sides of the plate, however, the Pirates will surely find a role for him.

Shortstop -- JaCoby Jones, West Virginia (117 games): Announced as a center fielder when the Pirates made him a third-round pick in 2013, the athletic Jones moved to shortstop in 2014 and was named to the Sally League end-of-season All-Star Team after leading the Pirates system with 23 homers.

Jones really caught fire in the second half, when he hit .322/.367/.613 with 15 of his 23 home runs in just 51 games. With the Pirates organization stronger in the outfield than the infield, Jones will get every opportunity to prove he can stick at shortstop, where such power is rare. His 26.3 percent strikeout rate (and 6.6 percent walk rate) is worrisome, but if he can refine his athleticism to make better contact and reach base more often, he's bound to move quickly.

Utility -- Andrew Lambo, GCL Pirates (four games), Jamestown (four games), Indianapolis (61 games), Pittsburgh (21 games): After bashing 32 homers in the Minors in 2013, Lambo came into Spring Training with a shot to earn a spot as the lefty portion of a first-base platoon in Pittsburgh. The California native, now 26, went just 4-for-42 with no extra-base hits in Grapefruit League play, however, and was sent back to Triple-A (the Pirates later dealt for Ike Davis). A lingering thumb injury cost him nearly two months, but when Lambo was able to play, he hit extremely well -- his .536 slugging percentage was best among all Pirates farmhands who played in at least 50 games.

With his proven power, Lambo remains an attractive option -- Pirates first basemen (largely Davis and Gaby Sanchez) posted a .689 OPS this year, second-lowest in the National League -- if he can make the translation to the Majors.

Outfielders

Josh Bell, Bradenton (84 games), Altoona (24 games): An All-Star with West Virginia in 2013, Bell was outstanding for Bradenton this year, batting .335/.384/.502 in 84 games with the Marauders and earning Florida State League MVP honors. The 6-foot-2, 235-pound switch-hitter led the circuit in both batting and slugging. Promoted to Double-A in mid-July, Bell continued to hit and get on base but suffered a serious power outage, slugging just .309 before a knee injury cut his season short.

Bell recovered in time to play in the Arizona Fall League, where the Pirates announced he would play first base. The fall campaign hasn't been kind to the 22-year-old: he committed an error in four straight games in mid-October and is still looking for his first home run since June 12 -- a streak of 280 homerless plate appearances through Nov, 9. Bell has a good eye and makes good contact -- he fanned only 55 times in 108 regular-season games -- and the Pirates aren't concerned by the lack of power.

"Josh has improved dramatically at first base since transitioning there," said Broadway. "Our focus with Josh from an offensive point of view is being a good hitter first. Power will be the last thing to come and is not our focus right now."

Keon Broxton, Altoona (127 games): Acquired from the D-backs in March, Broxton had the finest season of his pro career in his second year at the Double-A level. Each of his offensive slash stats -- .275 average, .369 OBP, .484 SLG -- were personal highs, producing an .853 OPS that was 198 points better than his 2013 equivalents. Broxton also stole 25 bases in 31 attempts and was solid in the outfield, committing just three errors.

The season was up-and-down for the Florida native. Broxton hit just .146 in April and .138 in June, but batted .374 in May and .349 in August. He finished out the year by hitting .319/.418/.593 after the All-Star break. Baseball America named Broxton the best athlete in the Arizona system for three consecutive years; with a newly potent bat, he'll be an interesting player to watch next summer.

Gregory Polanco, Indianapolis (69 games), Pittsburgh (89 games): "When will the Pirates call up Polanco?" That was one of the biggest questions of the first two months of the season, as the phenom tore up the International League. Polanco hit .347/.405/.540 with seven homers, 49 RBIs and 15 stolen bases in 62 games before the Pirates finally summoned him to Pittsburgh on June 10. Three days later, he collected five hits against the Marlins. Four days after that, he became the first Pirate since Roberto Clemente to record a hit in each of his first seven big league games, then he broke the record with another hit the following day.

After the first rush of Major League success, Polanco struggled -- he hit .288/.374/.375 in June and .213/.280/.330 subsequently -- and briefly returned to Indianapolis in August. Nevertheless he remains an enormous talent and, after turning just 23 in September, is poised to join Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte long-term in one of the Majors' most potent outfields.

Honorable mention: Austin Meadows

Right-handed starting pitcher -- Tyler Glasnow, Bradenton (23 games): Not only is Glasnow our pick for top Pirates righty, he was the Florida State League's Pitcher of the Year and our choice for the Minor Leagues' best starter. The 6-foot-7 Glasnow notched 157 strikeouts in 124 1/3 innings, fanning 11.4 per nine innings, far and away the best among any Pirates Minor League starter. In all, he held opposing hitters to a .174 batting average, better than any other full-season starter in the Minors.

Despite his dominance, the Pirates let Glasnow complete the regular season at the Class A Advanced level before sending him to the Arizona Fall League. The California native, who turned 21 in August, was more than three years younger than the average FSL pitcher in 2014 and, though his stuff is undeniable, his command continues to be a work in progress. After walking 4.9 batters per nine innings with West Virginia in 2013, Glasnow issued 4.1 per nine for Bradenton. Glasnow's emergence has vaulted him into the top spot on MLB.com's list of Pirates prospects and No. 16 overall in the Minors -- seventh among the pitchers. With his height, fastball velocity and movement and improving command, Glasnow has the Pirates excited.

"His secondary pitches are progressing well," said Broadway. "He is starting to be able to throw them in the zone with some consistency, which really is the key for him. If hitters have to honor his off-speed [pitches], then his fastball becomes that much more devastating."

Left-handed starting pitcher -- Orlando Castro, Bradenton (17 games), Altoona (two games): Castro has a history of struggling at each new level, then returning the following season to pitch successfully. After posting a 4.32 ERA and .295 average against with Bradenton in 2013 -- primarily as a reliever -- the 22-year-old southpaw shrank those numbers to 3.17 and .230 in 2014.

Promoted to Double-A Altoona in July, Castro was hit hard in a pair of starts before being shut down for the season with a fatigued pitching shoulder. When he's at his best, Castro has excellent command and an ability to keep the ball in the park. But he has yet, after five years in the Minors, to pitch more than 108 innings in a season and his strikeout rate is underwhelming. Next season will be an important one for his development.

Relief pitcher -- Jhondaniel Medina, Bradenton (35 games): Medina is not a terribly imposing figure on the mound -- he's 5-foot-11 and 158 pounds -- but he's proved very hard to hit. Florida State League batters managed to hit just .174 off him in 50 innings in 2014.

The Venezuelan-born right-hander posted a 0.72 ERA for the Marauders and did not allow a home run in 2014. In hindsight his ERA is particularly amazing in light of the 29 walks he issued in 50 innings -- one fewer than the 30 hits he gave up -- meaning he was constantly dancing in and out of trouble. If the 21-year-old Medina can improve his command while maintaining that minuscule opponents' average, he'll be a handful on the mound no matter his size.

John Parker is an editor for MiLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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